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The west coast of New Zealand’s south island is home to some of the most beautiful glaciers in the world. Two of the most popular are Fox Glacier and Franz Josef Glacier. While these two glaciers are “sister glaciers,” or even “twin glaciers,” they’re actually quite different. If you’re wondering whether to heli hike Fox Glacier or heli hike Franz Josef Glacier, read on to learn about the similarities and differences between the two and how to plan your glacier heli hike trip.

Fox Glacier

Planning a Glacier Heli Hike in New Zealand

Overview of Fox Glacier and Franz Josef Glacier

Fox Glacier and Franz Josef Glacier are located 30 minutes from one another on the west coast of the south island of New Zealand. The only way to hike either glacier is to take a helicopter to the glacier with a guide. That’s because the glacier is constantly moving, and it can be extremely dangerous to traverse the glacier on your own without the right gear.

When to visit Fox Glacier and Franz Josef Glacier

Planning a glacier heli hike in New Zealand can be trickier than it sounds. The weather on the west coast changes rapidly, and there really aren’t any guarantees. Since taking a helicopter is the only way to get onto the glacier, and it’s only safe to fly under ideal weather conditions, your glacier heli hike could be cancelled at the last minute if the clouds shift or the wind speeds pick up.

Glacier heli hike tours to Fox Glacier and Franz Josef Glacier are offered year round, but you’ll be able to find the best weather on the west coast from December through the end of March. If you’re only able to visit during the shoulder season, however, don’t despair. We visited toward the end of October and lucked out with some good weather.

Helicopter arriving at Fox Glacier

Where to stay in Fox Glacier and Franz Josef Glacier

While you can find accommodations in both towns at Fox Glacier and Franz Josef Glacier, Franz Josef is much more populated. There are more restaurants, bars, and cafes at Franz Josef, as well as a plethora of hiking trails to keep you active while you wait for the perfect weather to arrive for your glacier heli hike. There is also a hot spring at Franz Josef that you can bathe in to heal your muscles after your hike or to help you to relax as you anxiously await a status update on your glacier heli hike tour.

Ideally, you would spend at least a few days in Franz Josef to maximize your chances of a successful glacier heli hike. Franz Josef Glacier Guides and Fox Glacier Guides are the two primary glacier heli hike tour companies that offer tours to Franz Josef Glacier and Fox Glacier.

Heli Hike Fox Glacier vs Heli Hike Franz Josef Glacier

While Fox Glacier and Franz Josef Glacier are often referred to as “twin glaciers,” there are a number of factors that differentiate the two. The chart below highlights some of the primary differences:

The only other important distinction to point out is that the weather at Fox Glacier is typically better than the weather at Franz Josef Glacier. Even though they’re located so closely together, the two glaciers face different directions. That means the wind and adverse weather is more likely to hit one over the other. Thus, if you’re limited on time, I would recommend booking your glacier heli hike at Fox Glacier rather than at Franz Josef Glacier.

Other than the above, Fox Glacier and Franz Josef Glacier are pretty similar. Glacier heli hikes offered on either mountain follow more or less the same itinerary, and costs are about the same as well.

Heli Hike Fox Glacier

Even though we had planned on hiking Franz Josef Glacier, we ended up hiking Fox Glacier instead. After rescheduling our 11:00am Franz Josef Glacier heli hike multiple times throughout the day, our tour company finally announced that the weather was not improving and all tours that day were cancelled.

There was an iSite located inside the same building as Franz Josef Glacier Guides, so we inquired with them about signing up for another tour the next morning. Luckily, there was an opening at Fox Glacier the following morning. Since we were planning on driving south the following day anyway, we figured we’d try our luck, even though the weather forecast predicted rain all morning.

Much to our surprise, Fox Glacier Guides announced that the tour was on when we arrived. We were ecstatic. This was probably the one activity we were most looking forward to during our time in New Zealand.

Getting briefed on hiking Fox Glacier

Before heading out, we were given warm socks, heavy duty boots, a waterproof bag, waterproof pants, and a waterproof coat. Our guide briefed us on safety precautions to be aware of while boarding the helicopter and while hiking on the glacier, including what to do in case we got trapped on the glacier and had to stay overnight there. That was a little alarming to hear, but it sounded like Fox Glacier Guides was amply prepared for any emergency that might occur.

All geared up and ready to go
All geared up and ready to go

The helicopter ride to Fox Glacier

Once we had the proper gear on and were properly briefed on how to conduct ourselves on the glacier, we took the bus to the helicopter launch pad nearby. The helicopter only sat six people, so it took a few return trips to transport our entire group to the glacier.

This wasn’t my first time riding in a helicopter, but it was my first time sitting in the front right next to the pilot. Getting to see all the controls and what the pilot had to do to keep the helicopter moving (which looked like very little!) was fascinating to me. While we had a pretty smooth ride there, the ride back was quite bumpy as the winds had picked up while we were on the glacier. I loved the helicopter ride to Fox Glacier, but if you have a fear of flying or are terrified of heights, you’ll want to brace yourself for this part of the glacier heli hike experience.

First glimpse of Fox Glacier
Catching our first glimpse of Fox Glacier from the helicopter

Hiking Fox Glacier

After disembarking the helicopter at the glacier, our guide gave each of us crampons to wear during the glacier hike. These spikes on the bottoms of our boots would help us to walk on the glacier safely, without slipping as we would in regular boots.

Disembarking from the helicopter onto the glacier
Disembarking from the helicopter onto the glacier

For the next 3-4 hours, our guide led us around Fox Glacier, carving steps into the ice with her ice axe as we discovered new paths. We saw ice caves, sculptures, bright blue pools, waterfalls, and even a baby animal that somehow found its way up there.

The glacier is absolutely breathtaking. Don’t forget to bring a camera, as you’ll want to capture all the views. Also, remember to bring a water bottle, as the water up there is the purest, and you’ll be able to refill your water bottle in any of the flowing streams on the glacier.

Want to explore more fun things to do in New Zealand? You might be interested in these posts:


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